Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Good Movie?

A Good Year - a review
Ever since rumours began to emerge that Ridley Scott was making a "wine film" in Provence with Russell Crowe, at least some members of the wine world have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of another Sideways. Well, I'm sorry to be the one to pour cold water on those hopes. Firstly A Good Year is – and is not – a "wine film". In a world of remakes, this movie could easily be reshot for a Saudi Arabian audience with remarkably few changes to the script. Running the screenplay through a "search and replace" programme that substituted "horse" and "stable" for "wine" and "cellar", and a relocation from southern France to southern Ireland would go a long way to permitting A Good Year to be reshot as A Good Season. Russell Crowe would still undergo a rural epiphany, but instead of giving up a career as a city slicker for life among the vines, he'd turn into a race horse trainer.

Of course, one might reasonably say that Sideways was simply a classic buddy-movie/ road-movie that happened to be set in a wine region, but it was a much, much better film than A Good Year. Scott's movie certainly looks good; indeed if the tourist authorities of London and Provence had commissioned him to knock up one of his commercials for them, sections of this film are almost certainly what he'd have delivered. The actors are all pleasant enough to watch too – indeed I'd happily watch Marion Cotillard, the female lead read the collected speeches of Jacques Chirac, and demand a rendition of the works of Donald Rumsfeld as an encore. But the film is one of the most lightweight efforts I've seen in a long while – and quite impossible to recognise as the work of the man responsible for Blade Runner. Don't get me wrong: this is not a bad film. Indeed, it's the kind of undemanding stuff I'm happy to find on offer in a plane on the long flight to Australia. But even romantic comedies – the category in which this wants to be included – need more of a plot than is on offer here. The film and the Peter Mayle novel on which it was based, were apparently cooked up by Mayle and Scott over a boozy lunch in much the same way that the two men must have conceived of clever 30 second commercials in the days before Mr M took root in France.

The story, such as it is, can be recounted in three sentences without spoiling the enjoyment of the film. Max, an orphan, spends summers, as a child, with his uncle Henry (nicely played by Albert Finney) who appreciates the finer things of life and owns a beautiful Provencal chateau and vineyard. By the time we meet him as an adult, Max has evolved into a noughties London version of Michael Douglas in Wall Street. But then, of course, Uncle dies, Max returns to Provence, falls in love with the place and with the delicious but hard-to-get café-owner Fanny (Marion Coutillard) and decides to give up on London and move into his old uncle's shoes.. And that, is more or less it. Russell Crowe is well cast as the city slicker but never begins to make us believe in the rural epiphany.

So what about the wine? I'm all too aware of the tedious readiness of bee-keepers or collectors of toy soldiers to pick holes in the veracity of cinematic moments concerning their special interest. But it seems fair to to consider A Good Year'd vinous veracity, given the fact that wine and winemaking supposedly lie at the heart of this movie, and that scriptwriter Marc Klein who admits that he knew nothing about Provence or wine when he took on the project, apparently "spent almost a year" researching both. It is very hard to see what Klein learned, that he could not have picked up by reading a couple of magazine articles. Stated bluntly, when it comes to wine, the film is almost totally incoherent. Early on, Max's best friend – a wine buff, we are told - sets the tone by wrongly identifying a Burgundy as a Bordeaux in a restaurant. Easily done, but less easy when the shape of the bottle is clearly visible. We are subsequently asked to believe that wine-loving Uncle and his devoted French winemaker Duflot not only produce a wine that is so revolting that almost no one in the film ever manages to swallow it, but also a "garage wine" with a cult reputation. Oh, I forgot to mention that the provenance of the garage wine is supposedly a mystery (which must make commercial distribution a little tricky) though anyone who has seen the vineyard artlessly and incongruously strewn with gravel might well guess.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment, though, was the fact that despite Ridley Scott's brilliant (though easily accomplished) job of making us all want to follow Max in moving to Provence, he fails to evoke the peculiar magic the wine can have on people. Two films have done this brilliantly: Sideways, in which you can almost smell the Pinot Noir that Maya is drinking and Babette's Feast, in which we first see Stephane Audran luxuriating in the first taste of great wine – any wine – after a long puritan sojourn in the snowy wastes of rural Denmark. Even more memorably, a few minutes later in this same film, comes the sight of an old woman who plainly sucks lemons as a hobby being seduced against her will by a glass of red. Ridley Scott is a very sophisticated evocative director; maybe one day he'll return to the subject of food and wine a lot more fruitfully than he did here.

A spoonful of sugar

A piece that originally appeared in Wine International magazine
Mary Poppins doesn’t often feature as an authority in articles about wine but, after tasting a range of the biggest-selling reds and whites in Britain and America and analysing the stupendous success of Yellow Tail (the Australian wine whose annual sales have grown from zero to over 120,000,000 bottles in under five years, I thought it time to give her the recognition she deserves. A spoonful of sugar not only helps the medicine go down; it does positive wonders for ordinary wine and food. The Romans knew about this, of course – and made plentiful use of honey. Asian cooks favour palm sugar while the sweetener of choice for manufacturers of supposedly savoury foods, from peanut butter to flavored crisps is more likely to be corn syrup, but the principle is the same.
The attraction of sweetness is one of nature’s little tricks to draw animals and birds to the fruits that will provide the energy they need. But its appeal is more complex than that. In his latest book, ‘Taste’ ( from Max Lake, the Australian surgeon-turned-winemaker-turned-authority-on -flavours-and-smells (of whom more in these pages, soon) points out that sugar evokes ‘warm and pleasant feellngs’. Even more interestingly, sugar apparently fosters what the men in white coats at the food factories call ‘go-away’ – a handy piece of jargon referring to the way it ‘allows fatty foods to be swallowed without leaving the inside of the mouth coated in fat particles’. In other words, the addition of a little sweetness to your prawn flavoured crisps enables you to eat a little more – and get a little fatter. No one knows more about this than the burger chains whose buns routinely contain 25% sugar.
If you except milk shakes, cream liqueurs, tea, coffee and hot chocolate, fat isn’t a significant component of most drinks, but in wine, as in Coca Cola, sugar can help to improve what the white-coated ones call ‘mouthfeel’. But it does more than that. As Lake points out, sweetness is a potent seasoning that brings out other flavours. Tomato sauce tastes better with a tiny amount of sugar and a wine with a higher sugar content has ‘a more lifted bouquet’ than one that is otherwise identical.
The wine world has traditionally been ambivalent towards sweetness, when it falls outside the realm of bottles that make a point of being fortified or made from super-ripe grapes. Almost everything else is supposedly dry.
Except of course, that it isn’t: most supposedly dry wines contain a certain amount of sugar. In France, where Mars Bars and Coke are relatively recent arrivals, this might commonly be around the two grammes per litre (0.2% of the finished wine) that the yeasts were unable to convert into alcohol. In the New World, especially North America, a ‘dry’ wine might have five times that level of sweetness. Interestingly, US wine writers argue over whether the sugar begins to be perceptible at five, six, seven or eight grammes. Most Frenchmen would claim that it is noticeable at four. Much, however, depends on acidity. Brut Champagne, for example, with up to 15 grammes of sugar can taste quite dry – if it has is enough acid bite. New Zealand Sauvignon is often sweeter than it seems – for precisely the same reason. I find sweetness in red wine more offensive, but the success of Piat d’Or in the 1980s and Yellow Tail and Blossom Hill today prove there are plenty of people who appreciate it. Some popular reds in the US now carry seven or eight grammes of sugar, and there is a move in France to follow suit. Producers of Rhone reds and of Muscadet – once the embodiment of dry white wine, but now increasingly hard to sell –are now making wines with four or more grammes.
All of which may come as news to the authors of websites and books promoting the Atkins, anti-carbohydrate, diet, most of whom presume anything less than a ‘medium sweet’ white to be totally free of sugar, and thus of carbs.. In fact, as Sutter Home’s website frankly acknowledges, a glass of typical Californian Chardonnay has around 3 grammes of carbohydrate, so, one bottle would give you around 15 grammes , or one carb. Which funnily enough, is roughly the same as you’d get from a teaspoon of Mary Poppins’ sugar

Cuisine in the Land of Oz

A piece originally published in Wine International magazine

The Australians are an ungrateful lot. None of them ever troubles to thank the British for giving them a truly priceless gift: the inferiority complex they used to refer to down under as ‘the cultural cringe’. If the Brits hadn’t made all those jokes about yoghurt having more living culture than their former colony, and about wine with names like Chateau Chunder it is quite possible that the fiercely competitive Aussies might never have had the drive to build the Sydney Opera House - or its world class movie and wine industries.

But while the rest of the world has been focusing its attention on Margaret River Cab-Merlot, Mad Max and Moulin Rouge the Aussies have been proving at home and away that they are every bit as skilled and inventive with their frying pans and casseroles as they are with their fermentation vats and film cameras. Somehow, extraordinarily, this young country has developed a vibrant food culture with which some self-satisfied British foodies might have a hard time competing. For anyone doubting the depth and breadth of interest in the subject that now exists in Australia, there was no better place to be than Adelaide in October 2003 for a biannual event called Tasting Australia. Created by two British imports, David Evans and popular local television-chef Ian Parmenter, this is an extraordinary celebration of quality hedonism I’d love to see copied elsewhere. For a solid week, visiting journalists and cooks such as Fernan Adria of El Bulli, Nick Nairn and Rick Stein leave their hotel rooms at dawn to tour around key regions of South Australia and experience local wines and foods, ranging from recent Aussie passions such as olive oil, verjuice - an alternative to vinegar, made from unripe grapes - and quince paste (produced in the Barossa Valley by a local food doyenne called Maggie Beer), to yabbies - local crayfish - roo tail - gourmet possom pate and goat’s cheese from a tiny, wonderfully-named outfit called Udder Delights. As a veteran of three of these events, the most vivid memories I have carried home are of the enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of the producers of all this food and drink. I learned more, for instance, about the character of different varieties of olive tree in Australia than I was ever able to discover in Italy.

The Aussies could actually teach their European counterparts quite a lot about 21st century farming. Instead of relying on subsidies from Brussels and bribes to leave land to its own devices, they are out there looking for ways to make food taste better - and bring in more profit for the farmer. While our cattle farmers are still coming to terms with the way their efforts to create cheap steaks and burgers resulted in mountains of mad cow carcases, their counterparts down under have quietly been moving into the realms of luxury meat. And you can be sure that there’s little that’s more luxurious than Wagyu beef. Once known as Kobe after the Japanese region where the cattle were traditionally farmed, this is carefully reared, corn and grain-fed meat with unique, fine, fat-marbling. As a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald put it, Wagyu beef now ‘pops up on restaurant menus as frequently as Boney M albums at garage sales’ - despite a cost to the chef of up to £20 per pound. But so too, do all sorts of other locally produced ingredients ranging from Australian Manchego cheese to wild lime chilli marmelade made from outback-grown ingredients known locally as ‘bush tucker’.

The media tour was only part of the Tasting Australia experience; the public, in the shape of some 30,000 residents of the Adelaide and its suburbs were also treated to a Writers’ Festival and a ‘Feast of the Senses’ in parkland on the banks of the River Torrens which flows through the city. Here, to the accompaniment of good live jazz people interestedly browsed and grazed their way past dozens of stalls offering samples of local fare and theatre sessions at which big name local and visiting chefs flexed their culinary muscles. The Adelaideans take this kind of event in their stride, partly because they are used to living in a city that boasts more restaurants per inhabitant than anywhere else in Australia and, I’d wager, most cities in Europe. The Central Market, one of Adelaide’s jewels claims to showcase 48 regional styles of food, and is enough of an attraction to warrant guided tours.

All of which begs a question: is there any such thing as Australian cuisine? To which I’d respond with a query of my own: given a set of bottles that might include unoaked 12% Hunter Semillon, 14.5% Barossa Chardonnay, Tasmanian Pinot Noir and Margaret River Zinfandel, can anyone define a single style of Aussie wine? The answer in both cases is that ‘Australianness’ consists of of an appreciation/requirement for flavour (the blandness often found in the US is rarely encountered here), coupled with a readiness to experiment and an unusual openness to all sorts of influences, from Italy to Indonesia. The most extraordinary thing about this is the speed at which both food and wine cultures have evolved. 50 years ago, when Max Lake the surgeon-cum-winemaker-cum-gastro-philosopher first visited Europe with his wife Joy, the flavours on offer shocked them to the core. Looking back, Joy says now ‘I’ll never forget the taste of my first Italian coffee, but that was just the start of it...’ Today, while the comfortable blandness of Starbucks lattes has regrettably gained a tiny foothold in Sydney, it is easier to get a decent coffee in Australia than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Revealingly, this country is second only to Italy in its per-capita ownership of domestic espresso machines, and in its taste for real coffee in the shape of a ‘short black’ a ‘long black’ or a machiato - an espresso with a small shot of milk. Caffeine-lovers down under can now pay the Coffee Days Gourmet Coffee Club $27.50 (£12.50) per month, for which they get a pound of beans from a different part of the world. After which they are invited to pop along to a chatroom at where they can discuss their reactions. The rationale behind the company is simple: according to is founder Mark Rotenstein ‘Australians love coffee, but we haven’t educated ourselves to the same level as [we have about] wine’.

Neal Whitaker, a British-born editor who arrived down under from the UK five years ago is fascinated by how much greater the hunger for words and images of food and wine is in Australia than in the UK - and by the fact that despite a polulation a third the size of the UK, there are actually far more food magazines down under than there are here. He carefully disassociates himself from the cynical view that Aussies read about food because there is so little else for them to do, but agrees that the cultural cringe and the isolation of being thousands of miles away from anywhere are both still far stronger than most Australians would care to admit. Whatever the cause, it was revealing that Whitaker’s most recent trip to London was for the launch of a UK version of Delicious, Australia’s biggest-selling food magazine. Vogue Entertaining, another excellent recipe-packed Antipodean monthly for which Whitaker is responsible, is still sadly only available in the UK as an import.

The food revolution has undeniably been fueled by a conspiracy of two forms of migration. On the one hand, since the 1970s, every year, vast numbers of young Australians have set out on voyages across the globe before or after going to university. Rumours that this rite of passage is, like voting, a legal requirement in Australia, have never been proved, but it’s a very rare Australian who hasn’t spent a year or so backpacking and in Europe or Asia - or probably both. If this kind of travel which involves living and generally working in foreign countries rather than flitting through through as a tourist, has been credited as inspiring the Aussie taste for wine, it has done even more to create an openness towards, curiosity about, and knowledge of a wide range of foods and dishes. It is no coincidence that the Lonely Planet guides are published in Melbourne. The newly acquired taste and tolerance for foreign food those itinerant Aussies carried home with the souvenirs of their trips, was fueled by the huge influx of Asian and European immigrants who, between 1951-2001 helped to swell the population by over 116%. (for comparison, the equivalent figures for the US and Britain are 80% and 17% respectively). The impact of that immigration cannot be exaggerated. Switch your television to the SBS network, and you’ll see the news in languages ranging from French to Lithuanian. Read the SBS Guide to Eating out in Sydney and you’ll find restaurants offering regional cuisine from Iran, Laos, Malta, the Philippines, Poland, Serbia, the Ukraine and Uruguay. One chapter is memorably devoted to ‘Lebanese, Iraqi and Armenian’ restaurants. While many of these restaurants offer genuine examples of the cooking to be found in those countries most of the cooks have been happily influenced by their environment. Stefano Manfredi, one of Sydney’s most respected chefs and restaurateurs put it well: ‘When the Italians arrived in Australia, they treated it as though it were another part of their own country, a rather larger island rather a long way south of Sicily’. Palermo, Pisa and Perth all have their own versions of Italian cookery.

The Italian acccent is evident throughout Australia, but what sets modern Aussie cooking apart is probably the way that Asian ingredients, flavours and techniques are now taken as much for granted as garlic might be here. In the wine section of a recent weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, a Clare Riesling, was paired with a vegetable tempura; for the Hunter Semillon, the recommendation was salt-and-pepper squid, while Chardonnays are variously matched with chicken satays and Sang Choy Bao. Never heard of that particular Malaysian dish? Don’t worry, nor had I. But I was just as challenged by ingredients like the galangal required for the recipe for Green Chilli Nahm Jihm that appeared in another part of the paper.

Perhaps the final word on the state of food down under, and the final adieu to any lingering culinary cringe, should go to Jeremiah Tower, the chef who is known in the US as the father of California cuisine and one of the world’s leading culinary commentators. ‘These days’, he wrote recently in the New York Times, ‘London and San Francisco are the gastronomic suburbs of Sydney. Australia is the epicentre’.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Blind faith

The way wine critics taste and assesss wine professionally has very little in common with the way most normal mortals consume it on a daily basis. And in some ways the professionals' method is fundamentally flawed. A bit of contextual information can, after all, make a huge difference to the accuracy of the way anything is assessed. I was reminded of this by a report by the Independent art critic, Thomas Sutcliffe, of the ‘Secret’ exhibition at the Royal College of Art. This annual event consists of 2,600 postcard-sized pictures by students at the college and – in presumably rather fewer numbers – by world famous artists. And, it’s the nearest the art world ever gets to a blind tasting, because all of the works are unsigned and on offer for the same price. – £35. So the picture you buy could be a good or bad original by a reputed master, or a good or bad copy or pastiche by a student.
Setting them out in this way, Sutcliffe says, levels down, rather than up. ‘Deprived of the normal guidelines for taste – track record and name and contemporary fashjion – you’re as likely to find yourself thinking that there’s not much to choose between acknowledged talent and unknowns as you are reassured that quality will always shine out... It really is quite difficult to tell the difference between incompetence and a sophisticared imitation of incompetence’.
Critics as illustrious as Clive Coates eschew blind tas ing completely, reasoning that, for example, some producers’ wines, look far better or worse at particular stages of their evolution . Giving a verdict after a single anonymous encounter is like taking a photograph of horses when they are half-way around the track – ignoring the fact that the grey that’s lagging behind the others has a history of putting on a late sprint into the winners’ enclosure. And what about the bottles twhose contents are let down by a less than great, but not actively TCA-laden, cork?
Other critics allow themselves the freedom to review their marks and words after the labels have been revealed if a wine seems atypical. But this kind of correction-by-hindsight inevitably carries its own dangers. A pair of winemaking friends in France told me of a fascinating tasting they had set up with a group of fellow enthusiasts. It all started out in a completely traditional way. Eight bottles of red were set out for assesment in camouflaged bottles. Marks were collected and totaled and an order of preference was anounced. When the results were set against the unmasked bottles, the tasters were surprised to find that they were quite different from what might have been expected. In particular, the wine they had almost all liked best most bore the label of an estate in Bandol, while the similarly near-unanimous loser carried the unmistakeable livery of Chateau Margaux. Naturally everyone present reviewed their notes and marks and poured themselves fresh samples.
Witth the knowledge they now had, the tasters were able to find qualities in the claret they’s previously missed. It was, they agreed, typical of a young Médoc to underperform at this stage of its career. And so the conversation continued, until the hosts revealed the cruel trick they had played. In fact, neither Margaux nor Bandol had featured in the tasting. All the wines had been produced iin various other parts of Languedoc Roussillon and decanted into empty bottles from more illustrious regions. As it happens, I wasn’t one of those who were duped at that event, but I might easily have been. And so might almost every other wine lover.
A few weeks ago I spent some time walking around an exhibition of what I thought were Cartier Bresson photographs (I was in the Fondation Cartier Bresson in Paris) marvelling at tthe Gallic master’s characteristic style and skill. Thanks to poor signposting, I’d carefully looked at 20 or 30 pictures before discovering that they’d all been taken by a brilliant near-contemporary called Inge Thorman.
Unfortunately for those who favour a world divided neatly between black and white, the human brain is not and can never be, an analytical machine. We all carry the baggage of previous experience and knowledge. Ultimately, we all have to choose our own way to judge everything around us – and remain ready to be made fools of all too regularly.